Hidden Bluebird Nest
In a hole in a tree, there lived a bird. It was not a dusty, cramped beetle hole, filled with sawdust and bug bits, nor was it a large, windy, woodpecker hole exposed to the elements: it was a bluebird hole, and that means comfort.
This Tolkien-inspired thought struck me today as I was taking 5th graders from Fenner Elementary on a chilly winter nature walk in the Nature Place, a forested area of their schoolyard that has been devoted to teaching about nature. In the middle of the Nature Place is a dead tree. Only the bottom ten or so feet of the tree is there, the rest of it had fallen or was cut off long ago, but those ten feet are full of holes.
There is a huge variety of holes in this tree including tiny holes, only a fraction of an inch across, made by boring insects and a huge Pileated Woodpecker hole, oval shaped and about 8 inches tall. Then there were a series of holes roughly an inch and a half in diameter. Most of these were dark and empty. I was exploring the tree with a number of the students when, from the other side of the tree, I heard one say “There’s a nest in here!”.
I’ve learned that students find nests all the time, but only a handful of those times are there really nests. For kids with a healthy imagination, anything can be a nest. A small bunch of leaves tucked somewhere by the wind or a tuft of grass torn up from a lawnmower can easily masquerade as a nest. So, when I heard this call, I was intrigued, but not convinced.
The student was looking at a hole right at his eye level. From my view, looking down on the hole, I didn’t see anything. It wasn’t until I crouched down to become eye level with this hole myself that the bundle of dry grass tucked neatly inside revealed itself. A small amount of chaos ensued as all the students clamored for their turn to peer inside. Once everyone had gotten a good look, I was assaulted with questions. What made the nest? Is anything living in there? Are there eggs inside? How old is the nest?
The students didn’t wait for my answers before they started trying to find answers themselves. Fingers and sticks became investigation tools as students prodded at the nest inside the hole. Nothing immediately ran out and it was determined that the nest was unoccupied. After consulting a handy nest chart, the students decided that the builder of the nest was most likely an Eastern Bluebird, who characteristically build their homes out of dead grass and not much else.
Finding this nest was a highlight of the walk, and it was something I would have never seen if I had not been with the students. Often, when I take students for nature walks, they begin with the impression that I will be pointing out things to them, but this is rarely the case. I always remind my groups that together, they have more eyes than I do. They will see all sorts of things I miss. This little bluebird nest was just one example of the nature treasures I would have missed had I been alone.
Students have a different perspective, both physically and mentally, that let them notice many things that I would walk right past. From a physical standpoint, being shorter allows them to see things that may be hidden to an adult. Mentally, they have fewer preconceived notions of what they should expect to find, and are therefore more open to finding the unexpected. As a person who spends a lot of time in nature, I often find myself making assumptions and potentially overlooking neat discoveries. I’ve looked in so many empty holes in trees that I start to assume all holes will be empty.
Working with students forces me to challenge those assumptions, and allows me a glimpse of the world through their eyes. It is a world where every hole may have a nest, every indent in the snow is an animal track, and where treasures lurk around every corner.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Emma Roth is a Nature Educator at Audubon Community Nature Center.